For those who live in geographically vulnerable areas and experience disaster, climate change grief is growing dramatically. For even the most optimistic and passionate environmental activists and climate change leaders, burnout and hopelessness run rampant. For businesses, the eco-anxiety experienced by younger generations entering the workforce can directly have an impact on engagement and productivity.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” A reported 68 percent of U.S. adults are constantly worried about the damaging effects of climate change.
Even so, this existential concern has yet to be addressed at scale. A recent report from the Grantham Institute revealed that of the 54,000 medical research papers mentioning climate change from 2010-2020, less than 1 percent also addressed mental health.
This gap is prevalent for organizations in particular. The link between stress and productivity is widely accepted, and younger generations like Millennials and Gen Zers, who are quickly becoming the dominant cohorts in the workforce, are widely affected by eco-anxiety. A global survey revealed that a staggering 84 percent of young people from ages 16 to 25 are either moderately worried, very worried, or extremely worried about climate change.
Eco-anxiety can cause a variety of mental health issues, invoking feelings of guilt, grief, anger, and even manifest as depression or PTSD. Eco-anxiety affects everyone differently, with indigenous communities, younger generations, underprivileged populations, and chronically ill individuals being more susceptible to severe cases.
Pooja Tilvawala, Youth Engagement Manager at The Climate Initiative, spearheads “climate courage workshops” where she educates communities and young climate leaders around the globe on how to articulate and manage their angst. She’s learned that some communities don’t even realize that what they’re experiencing is eco-anxiety, or that their feelings are tied to the demise of their land.
“It’s not that people don’t know that climate change is happening,” she said. “They just don’t necessarily have the vocabulary to describe it as climate change.”
The professional capacity to help the growing number of troubled individuals with eco-anxiety is greatly limited. Currently, there are only around 900 psychologists and psychiatrists in North America who specialize in climate-related mental health therapy. But as Tilvawala suggests, a promising first step is to simply lend a voice and listen.
Jennifer King and Timothy Fredel have a focused and integrated approach to eco-anxiety. They are the founders of the Rugged Elegance Foundation, which aims to have a positive impact on BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and women industry leaders in the climate space and beyond.
By promoting physical and mental health through guided meditations along outdoor trails, recharge rooms, and journaling sessions, King and Fredel have seen how nature itself can help business leaders reframe eco-anxiety as a motivational tool for themselves and bring a refreshed perspective to the organizations they lead.
“We hosted a workshop and the person leading it said, ‘What if we flipped the script and instead of saying climate change is happening to us, we said climate change is happening for us?’” Fredel recalled.
King noted that although this perspective shift brings encouragement, eco-anxiety can be amplified by the desire to rush into solutions. Therefore, striking a balance between action and reflection is vital in maintaining hope.
“With eco-anxiety, it’s easy to focus on this feeling that the only way we’re going to make progress is to keep pressing forward, but we must recognize the importance of stopping and listening, listening and hearing,” King said. “In that, we can address the anxiety, we can diminish the anxiety, and then actually impact the world.”
For all the disheartening eco-anxiety I’ve witnessed throughout my career, I’ve seen many cases where individuals use their eco-anxiety to spur themselves to action and focus on making an impact.
Take, for example, the three climate activists that now sit on the board of directors for ExxonMobil — a first in the history of any oil company, or that Harvard University announced that it will cut all investment ties to fossil fuel companies. Consider the revoked permit preventing the long-disputed Keystone Pipeline project from running oil through native soil. This is evidence that action is causing incremental positive change within economic, educational, and political contexts.
For businesses currently dealing with an eco-anxious workforce, it’s worth taking that pause to listen to workers and address their concerns. Easing eco-anxiety in the workplace is twofold.
First, it requires a robust system for helping your team with mental health, providing them with benefits, resources, and a forum for voicing their struggles.
Two, it requires companies to become fundamentally sustainable in their operations. With younger generations seeking organizations that align with their values, demonstrating your dedication to climate action can greatly ease employee concerns.
What this ultimately comes down to is leading with empathy, which as King, Fredel and Tilvawala all emphasize, means listening to those struggling with eco-anxiety in order to properly address it and encourage action.
And of course, a long-term solution would be to instill the positive mindsets that turn anxiety into action at a young age by implementing action-based climate education in schools. Younger generations can continue this chain of change by bringing eco-friendly ideas into student clubs, eventually laddering up to local councils, elected positions, and business boards to cause a cascade of change.
Harnessing eco-anxiety to fuel the desire to make a change and focusing on “actionism” as a way forward can be an eye-opening perspective shift for many. As Tilvawala advises, “Have a place to channel that energy. Turn that despair into action.”
Eco-anxiety can be paralyzing, hard to comprehend, and challenging to overcome. Seeing climate action play out and make an impact gives us the fortitude to keep going. It’s a process that needs to happen individually and must also be collectively encouraged.
Tilvawala summed up her thoughts by referencing a line from Amanda Gorman’s poem, “New Day’s Lyric.”
“‘For even solace can be sourced from sorrow,’” she read. “That’s kind of the sentiment here. That those who care and have the shared sorrow for the detriment to our planet, and people, and life can find community in each other.”
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